Marc Savard Career-Ending Concussion a Wake-Up Call to NHL Leadership?

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Marc Savard Career-Ending Concussion a Wake-Up Call to NHL Leadership?
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Marc Savard in better days

Marc Savard has been one of the best setup men in hockey since the lockout. The talented forward was third in the league in assists for three straight years after the work stoppage in 2004/05. He has been a point-a-game player since his first full season with the Atlanta Thrashers back in 2003/04.

Now that all appears to be over. Now at the age of 34 his career seems to be done. His future health and happiness are in doubt now because of a brain injury suffered in an NHL game.

Savard battled back from the Cooke hit to play again last year, but he only lasted 25 games before a hit from defenseman Matt Hunwick appeared to put him out of hockey for good. Cooke was not suspended for the hit though this hit was a factor in getting the league to institute the hard to apply and mostly ineffectual Rule 48.   

The Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli announced last Wednesday that Savard will not play this year. He said from what he has heard that it is very unlikely Savard will ever play again.

Marc Savard is the latest in a litany of talented hockey players who have had their careers shortened, diminished or ended by concussion. Each such loss diminishes the talent pool in the league they play in.        

Savard Claims Malice by Matt Cooke

The single biggest problem facing the NHL today is the concussions that players are suffering. There were over 70 players in the NHL last year who lost playing time as the result of a head injury. The NHL's biggest star right now, Sidney Crosby, has been reported as unready for the preseason this year. This after eight months off with a concussion that stemmed from a hit to the head on the New Years Day game versus the Washington Capitals.

In fact the hockey world today waits with baited breath for Sidney to make an announcement at 12:30 pm eastern time from Pittsburgh about his condition and how the concussions he suffered last year are still affecting him.   

Crosby is still out and apparently unready to play hockey again any time soon. Only time will tell if he can make a full recovery or if this is the beginning of the end. Eric Lindros was on the verge of perhaps being the greatest NHL player of his time before concussions reduced his ability and prematurely ended his career. 

Is Crosby on the same path that the likes of Lindros, Pat Lafontaine and apparently Marc Savard have trod or is treading?  

A league struggling to market itself can ill afford to lose another great player to an unnecessary, debilitating head injury.

Cooke Justifies the Hit

The NHL just ran a rule research and development camp with some of the best junior players in the world where they play-tested a variety of rule proposals and rink equipment enhancements. Seeking a solution to the head injury problem barely got lip service.

As a professional procrastinator I understand the NHL's temptation to ignore the problem and simply hope it will go away. At times the NHL has moved too quickly to make radical rule changes and the consequences have been ugly. 

As scoring decreased in the late 90's, big goalies in even bigger equipment were getting run over more and more often by opposing forwards. Despite a rule in place that gave a goaltender interference penalty to a player who made contact with the opposing goalie in his crease, a new rule was drafted and adopted.

The NHL attempted to stop the rash of goalie collisions by instituting a simple non-judgment rule. If a player put a skate in the crease ahead of the puck back in 1996/97, he was called for a minor penalty. This helped stop the running into the goaltender problem but also lead to a myriad of goals being called back, many of where the player in the crease had no effect on the goal being scored.

After Brett Hull scored his controversial skate in the crease goal in triple overtime to win the Stanley Cup for the Dallas Stars back in 1999, the skate in the crease rule was soon eliminated and goaltender interference went back to being a judgement call on the part of the referees.

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Perhaps the NHL fears a similar embarrassing about face if they move too quickly to an absolute, non-judgment type of rule. Unfortunately this has been a problem for NHL players since the league began. As the players have gotten faster and bigger and the equipment has gotten better and less forgiving, the problem has gotten worse. By 1998 the problem had gotten bad enough to generate this news story saved to YouTube.

Awareness is up so players are being more carefully monitored. More and more instances of concussions that have been missed in the past will be seen and addressed. More players will miss games. More players will suffer damage that may haunt them into retirement. It is long past time for the NHL to do something real to try to stem the tide that's coming.

Apparently terrified to lose their image as a stoic tough man's league, the NHL would rather do nothing or worse than nothing than take the chance that some of the hitting in the game may be diminished.

Shawn Thornton's lonely plea in the playoffs for players to stop hitting each other in the head seems to have gone unheard. The players don't seem capable of stopping the carnage. A dozen Matt Cooke-like  players in a fast-paced dangerous game are probably enough to insure the danger of receiving a concussion from an illegal hit won't go away. It seems like it is up to the league to protect the players from themselves.

A 2011 story on concussions sounds much the same as the 1998 story, only they have more injured players to talk about. This problem is nowhere near vanishing.

The NFL is the most physical of the North American sports leagues. They have moved further and faster than the NHL to attempt to mitigate the effects of concussions on their players. Yet they find themselves the victims of a class action law suit from six former and one current NFL players for their treatment of the same.

A more proactive NHL head office needs to try to get what seems like an epidemic of unnecessary head and brain injuries under control.   

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